Written by Joe Scotchie Friday, 22 October 2010 00:00
The Lower East Side was on people’s minds last Thursday as the Sid Jacobson JCC’s Harvey & Phyllis Sandler Author and Breakfast Book Signing series featured the novelist described by Dennis Lehane as “the greatest writer of dialogue…this country has ever produced.”
Richard Price was at the JCC to discuss his latest novel, Lush Life and to talk about his career in general. The talk was almost like being in a Richard Price novel as he explained early on that his cell phone, as opposed to those in the audience, would have to remain on. As it turned out, Price’s real estate agent was closing on a house sale in Manhattan that very day. And indeed, his talk was interrupted no less than three times to answer such calls. Once, he had to leave the stage, but during the final call the news came that the sale came through and that everything turned out well.
Lush Life takes place on the Lower East Side and its appearance represented a coming home of sorts for the novelist, as he, like many in the audience, can trace his ancestry in the U.S. to that world famous neighborhood. Since his early success as a novelist in the 1970s, Price has lived in Manhattan, where his two daughters were born and raised. In the 1990s, the Lower East Side was notorious for crime, but by the next decade, the safety of the neighborhood increased markedly and soon Price was hearing stories of his now-grown daughters visiting clubs on Rivington or Ludlow Streets. This is the same area that Price’s own grandparents were from and the novelist realized that the Lower East Side was a reality to both his grandparents and his daughters, but not to him. And so, Price decided his next novel would be about the Lower East Side.
A lifelong New Yorker, Price related that he enjoyed his discovery into the new Lower East Side, an amalgamation of Orthodox Jews, Chinese and Dominican immigrants, and the professional class that has made the neighborhood a candidate for gentrification. Price also noted that these various ethnic and socioeconomic groups rarely interact. A particularly tragic crime served as the model for a plot to a novel that would also serve as a “travelogue of the Lower East Side.”
Price’s early novels were set in his native borough of The Bronx, but his later books include a great deal of police work, so prior to Lush Life, Price already had experience in actually driving around with members of the New York City Police Department as they dealt with real life situations. The same process helped with the writing of Lush Life.
Price read from the novel and then answered questions from the audience. Like many writers, he admitted that he doesn’t like to write, but that “the only thing worse than writing is not writing.” “I’d rather hang out with the people I’m going to write about than actually writing about them,” he said.
Price, as noted, is legendary for his dialogue, which perfectly captures the language of New York, whether it is set in a north Bronx housing project of the early 1960s, Co-op City as it stood in the 1970s, or the Lower East Side of today. Much of that comes from hearing voices Price grew up with, but it also comes from research, in this case, just spending time casually with people and places he hopes to write about. Price said that when he asks a subject a certain question and already knows the answer, then he knows that his research time is up; he knows enough about his environment to write about it.
When asked about literature in general, Price said he has no use for such technology as Kindle books. In fact, it wasn’t until Lush Life, that he began using computer technology, as all of his previous books were handwritten. Price would make no predictions about the future of literature except to note that the death of the novel has been falsely predicted before. As for his own novels, Price said that he only writes to “bear witness.” His novels carry no message, but are only portraits of people and places and the times they are set in. As with another great writer of dialogue, Ernest Hemingway, Price is an eclectic reader, enjoying works of history as much as other people’s fiction.
In all, it was a love for storytelling that set him on the path to being a novelist. At Bronx High School of Science, Price enjoyed English and History to other subjects. But as the first member of his family to attend college, Price was wary about embarking on the career of an artist, thinking, instead, of the legal profession. His agonizing came to an end when his father, the owner of a hosiery store on White Plains Road, told him one day that if he wanted to be a writer, then he should “just do it,” and quit procrastinating.
And so, Price enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University and later, at Stanford University in California, where the distance from New York gave him the emotional and physical space to write his first novel, The Wanderers (1974), a critically acclaimed book about the lives of five Italian-American teenagers living in a north Bronx housing project, an experience similar to Price’s own upbringing. That success saved Price from being just another labor relations attorney and sent him on the way to his status as one of the America’s top fiction writers of the past three decades.
Future events of the Author and Breakfast and Book Signing will feature the follow books and authors:
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Thursday, Dec. 2
The 188th Crybaby Brigade by Joel Chasnoff
Thursday, March 24, 2011
The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine
Thursday, April 28, 2011
10:30 a.m. - noon
Fees are $140/nonmembers and $120 for a series of four
Author Breakfasts, including the Price event; $80/nonmembers and $70 for any 2 different events ; $50/nonmembers and $40 for a single Author Breakfast. Tickets can be purchased on the website www. sjjcc.org/books or by calling 484-1545.
For more information, contact Elyse Ingber, Performance and Visual Arts director, 484-1545, ext. 144.